Originally set in the 1950′s and 1960′s, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified has been in development since 2006. The Bureau was first pitched as cross between the original XCOM and the X-Files. The game was originally supposed to have a base development mechanic and multiplayer, but over the years, the game’s design and vision shifted,. What 2K Games delivered is an origin story for the XCOM Initiative set in 1962. The game ended up being a third person tactical shooter with a “battle focus” mechanic, and a relentless enemy who has their sights set on taking Earth. With The Bureau pushing a seven year development cycle, it is finally worth the wait or should consumers keep on looking?
The XCOM Initiative
The story of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified centers around a secret alien invasion of Earth during 1962. The United States Bureau of Strategic Emergency Command has been looking into strange occurrences around the U.S. and have concluded that humanity is under attack by an unknown alien force. Confrontations take place in different parts of the U.S. and it’s The Bureau’s job to keep these events out of the public eye.
If you’re looking for something deeper, you might be disappointed. There are three principal characters in the game, each with their own brief story arc. William Carter is a CIA agent, Agent Angela Weaver has a vendetta against the aliens, and Director Myron Faulke has secrets on top of secrets. The game’s overall story never really moves beyond the whole alien invasion angle and character development is limited to short conversations that focus on the war effort and what Agent Carter needs to do next. This approach gives a narrow window into Agent Weaver’s motivations for joining The Bureau, but says almost nothing about Director Faulke or the other characters.
Players will take on the role of Agent Carter, a tough former war hero recruited by The Bureau because of his ability to get the job done. The game opens up as Agent Carter is ordered to deliver a package to a top secret base that comes under attack shortly after he arrives. Now, Agent Carter must escape the destruction of the base with two field agents in tow if he wants to survive. As the newest agent of The Bureau, its Agent Carter’s job to meet the Outsider threat head on and destroy them at every encounter.
A Distinct Style
Agent Carter is the typical no nonsense kind of guy who sounds like he’s being voiced by Clint Eastwood, and certainly belongs in the era that The Bureau is set in. The game uses sound effects from old sci-fi movies that players will have to pay close attention to recognize. The only time I heard any music from the period was the one time the radio worked in Agent Carter’s office and during the closing credits of the game. The developers did a good job of making the cars, diners, and the shops on main street look like they belong in 1962. The character models in the game are designed to look realistic, including the faces of older characters, that clearly show their age. Clothing styles for women consist of knee high skirts while men are wearing suits or uniforms. Everything stands out as period specific, from the cat eye glasses a nurse wears to Agent Carter’s distinct fedora.
The Mod Squad
Every battle I had with the Outsiders was fast paced and extremely unforgiving, even though Agent Carter’s squad can lay down enough firepower to level a building. I had to keep one eye on my squad and the other on the enemy at the same time. Encounters early in the game tend to be quick, so players don’t have to move around that often. The game eventually begins to throw tougher and tougher enemies into the fray, making each confrontation longer. Battles take place in closed off areas on a larger map, which prevents players from retreating to a safe location and forces them to move from cover to cover.
The downside to Carter’s squad is the AI. The game is so dependent on the player making all the choices, the only thing the squad can do is fire on the enemy. This adds to the overall challenge, but it can also add to the frustration when squad members start dying. I like a challenge as much as the next person, but the game can almost feel like one giant escort mission. It’s not, but better squad AI would definitely help. That being said, having finer control over a squad isn’t a bad thing. It took me some getting used to in the beginning, but I acclimated to it quickly.
My first enemy encounter with the Outsiders went relatively smoothly, during the tutorial portion of the game. The agents I was with had enough of their powers unlocked to make combat a lot easier. My second encounter with the Outsiders, however, didn’t go so well. I had two new recruits with limited powers and I was still new to the whole “look after your squad members” gameplay mechanic, so they ended up dying when I least expected it. My first reaction was to not care and go solo but two new agents quickly showed up to take their place. This may not seem like a big deal, but when players start losing experienced squad members with important abilities unlocked, replacing them with level one characters is not an option.
In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, when a squad member goes down, a medic has to get to them before they bleed out and die. The Bureau is a little more forgiving in this department because anyone can revive a downed squad member; this is especially helpful when Agent Carter goes down. Group heals and reviving comes in handy when confronted with the large Muton Elites who do all of their fighting up close. I have to admit, I didn’t think I would like this style of gameplay, but I grew to love it over the course of the game.
The battle focus ability is a unique game mechanic that allows Agent Carter to issue orders to his squad. Pressing the Circle button (B on Xbox) on the controller brings up a radial menu that slows down the gameplay to a snail’s pace, but doesn’t stop time entirely. Each ability has its own cool down, allowing players to throw any number of combat abilities onto the field of battle should they be available. If there is one disadvantage to the battle focus, it’s that the radial menu covers most of the screen, so players can’t always see what’s coming at them. I found myself taking a little too long to choose an ability and ended up being surrounded by the enemy. The player chooses what class each new squad member will be and each class will have their own special combat abilities.
The squad members’ abilities are all based on their class. This can make some classes more adept to combat and more valuable in the field. The classes consist of the Commando, Engineer, Support, and Recon. Early on in the game, Agent Carter and his squad only have a few of their abilities unlocked so players will have to be careful how they proceed.
When I played XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I switch out my squad members regularly. This allowed them to earn experience, level up and unlock new abilities. There are only so many missions players have to level up their characters in XCOM: Enemy Unknown that when experienced characters die, new and often under powered characters are brought in to take their place. In The Bureau, the game offers three types of missions to level up on. Critical missions advance the story, side missions are there to gain extra experience without advancing the plot, and non-critical missions are a leveling tool only the squad members can go on. I found the easiest way to level up the squad was to choose the class I wanted by my side and send them on as many non critical missions as it took to level that character up. This unlocks their stronger abilities faster so they can do more damage to the enemy.
The two field operatives I chose to accompany me through my game were both Engineers. The Engineer uses a Scatter ability that flushes enemies from cover. They can also throw down mines and set up turrets to bring extra firepower to the fight. Using these abilities allowed me to slow the enemies’ advance and keep them from rushing my position at every encounter.
Who are the Outsiders?
The Outsiders are an advanced alien race who have come to Earth in search of a new home. They began a campaign of enslaving humanity and terraforming the planet by going through one small town at a time. The species that make up the Outsiders are the Zujari who are the typical foot soldiers that make up the bulk of the units. They are commanded by the Zujari Commanders who use shields of their own and can add shields to different allies in combat. The Zujari, in general, command the little grey aliens known as the Sectoids in battle and are often seen being smacked around. Mutons are the large hulking aliens that come in different heavy armor variants, including Muton Elites that use jet packs to cross the battlefield. Mutons advance on the players position with little regard for their safety. They are damage sponges that soak up enemy fire with their heavy armor. Mutons only take damage once that armor is gone, so this chips away at the tactical advantage the Outsiders deploy when attacking.
It may not seem like it but the Outsiders do use effective tactics to overwhelm Agent Carter and his squad. The Muton move straight up the middle drawing the players attention and splitting up the squad. Other Outsiders move in to flank the players position, overwhelming them with firepower and grenades. I found myself in this position many times and only managed to escape with the help of my squad. The enemy AI may be difficult at times, but they are not impossible to stop.
The Bureau has some really effective enemy AI. The Outsiders use cover very effectively. They pop in and out of cover to shoot or move position. In most shooters that has enemy AI that is supposed to flank the player, the enemy never gets the chance of they are just not effective enough to get the job done. In The Bureau, the enemy AI is relentless. They never stop advancing on Agent Carter’s position. Stay in one place for too long and they toss grenades at your position. At certain points of the game, I found myself more interested in combat than in the story.
The Last Battle
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is a top notch tactical shooter that offers a challenge at every enemy encounter. The developers put a lot of time and effort into the action sequences of this game and it shows. That same effort also went into making a convincing recreation of 1960′s America. The combat abilities are fun to use and are very effective when used properly. Sadly, The Bureau‘s story focus on an alien invasion that takes place in 1962 and very little else. The characters’ personal stories are almost non existent and occur very late in the game. Despite this, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is a well designed shooter that will appeal to fans of the genre, as long as you’re not looking for heavy character based storytelling.
Chris played The Bureau: XCOM Declassified on the Squaddie (Medium) setting for this review. He took 14 hours to complete the game. Chris was not supplied with a review copy of the game.